It is pretty well-known now that a historic wrestling run by Benzie Central came to an end in a Division 4 Quarterfinal last weekend.
Perhaps equally known is the Huskies qualified 11 grapplers for the Individual Finals taking place today and Saturday at Ford Field.
But not many are familiar with the story of senior athletes Wyatt Noffsinger and Austin Smith — the undisputed motivational leaders of the team — and their personal Benzie wrestling history.
The story began when Noffsinger was an eighth grader. He took a trip with a friend and his father to watch the MHSAA Finals. And it is ending this weekend with Noffsinger and Smith watching — and cheering on — their teammates at the championship event.
Noffsinger and Smith did not qualify for this weekend’s competition. Noffsinger fell one point shy in his 175-pound bracket at the Individual Regional. And Smith graciously had opted to give up his spot in the postseason lineup to Noffsinger.
Last year Smith was among 12 Benzie wrestlers who advanced to Regionals. And injuries kept Noffsinger off the mat.
“It’s a proud moment for me as a coach,” said 10-year veteran coach Josh Lovendusky. “These two guys haven’t missed a practice in the postseason because they knew they had to be there for the team to help them train so they can be ready for the Finals.
“They don’t have to be there — they put their team first,” he continued. “They’re giving up their time to make sure their teammates are successful.
Noffsinger and Smith represent what the Huskies – who made their first-ever appearance at Team Finals weekend – are all about, according to Lovendusky, who now shares his coaching duties with co-coach Cody Vandonkelaar.
“It is what we’ve been trying to embody this entire season,” Lovendusky said. “Coaching for as long as I have, I have never seen somebody as selfless as these two individuals have been this season.”
Smith may get the honor of being the most selfless. He voluntarily gave up his slot wrestling at 144 pounds for his friend Noffsinger, nicknamed “Cheddar.”
Teams may send only 14 competitors into the individual tournament (not counting the girls division). Benzie’s postseason roster was developed by team vote, and Smith was originally selected. After stewing on it for a few days and recalling how Noffsinger – who wrestles at 175 pounds – didn’t get a shot at Districts or Regionals last year, Smith approached Vandonkelaar about making the change.
“I only felt right that we both get three chances at (the postseason),” Smith said of his decision. “I don’t get four and he only gets two.
“I just thought it would be fair if we both went three for three.”
Both Smith and Noffsinger are thrilled the coaches made the roster change, especially since it resulted in a nail-biting finish in the “blood round” – the round that determines the final two qualifiers who will advance or be done. As luck would have it, Noffsinger faced a teammate in his Finals-qualifying match hosted by Charlevoix, and lost by one point.
“Cheddar exceeded my expectations, to be honest,” Smith said. “It came down to one point.
“I was on the end of my seat, and whoever lost I’d feel bad for and whoever won I’d feel awesome for,” Smith continued. “He came up a little bit short, and I am just happy he got a shot to go.”
Noffsinger is at the top of his class academically and led the Huskies to academic all-state recognition this year. The three-sport star is grateful Smith yielded his spot.
“Austin didn’t have to do that,” Noffsinger said. “I wasn’t expecting it.
“It completely says a lot about who he is as a man … who he is as a friend,” he continued. “I was so grateful.”
Without Smith, Noffsinger is quick to point out, he would not have had the chance to fulfill the dream of competing at the Finals that began with that eighth-grade trip.
“Knowing that I was going to have the last shot to make it was a huge sense of relief and gratitude for him as a friend to give me that opportunity,” Noffsinger said. “I wanted to win really bad and make it.
“And the same time, it hurts knowing if you do win, you’re going to take a teammate’s shot at making it – and it really hurt knowing your dream was gone,” Noffsinger said of falling one point short. “It is still cool because we made it as a team, and it will be awesome to be down there for the experience and the amazing atmosphere.”
Lovendusky is quick to point out the two seniors represent much more leadership than any coach could ever request.
“These two individuals are the unsung, motivational leaders of this team,” Lovendusky said. “At the team states neither one of them wrestled, but they were the absolute loudest.
“They made sure the team was ready to go,” Lovendusky continued. “You can’t ask for better senior leadership than kids giving everything they have even though they didn’t have the opportunity to wrestle, and they were a pivotal part of what our team did.”
Smith and Noffsinger have one more leadership task to complete when the Individual Finals are over. They’ll lead the charge into the Brazilian steak house that’s become a tradition for the Huskies team.
They’re looking forward to the large serving of steak on a skewer. And they will celebrate this year’s team making history.
“It’s all-you-can-eat meat, and it’s an awesome experience,” said Noffsinger.
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) From left: Benzie Central co-coach Cody Vandonkelaar, Wyatt Noffsinger, Austin Smith and co-coach Josh Lovendusky show off the program’s hardware won this winter. (Middle) Smith and Noffsinger help as officials at a youth wrestling tournament this week. (Below) Smith celebrates a match win, while Noffsinger attempts to break free from an opponent. (Photos courtesy of Jill Robinson and Shane Iverson.)